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Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Man On Wire

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Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Man On Wire

When Philippe Petit—the lively Frenchman who executed the “artistic crime of the century” in the summer of 1974 by sneaking up to the top of the World Trade Center and, for nearly an hour, performing a high-wire act without safety net or harness—was taken into custody and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct, reporters immediately shoved microphones in his face. “Why?” they wanted to know. “Why did he do it?”

“Why? That is so American to ask why,” Petit answers in James Marsh’s poignant documentary Man On Wire, inspired by his autobiographical account To Reach The Clouds,and which takes its name from the words listed on the police record under ’detail of complaint.’ “Here I do something magnificent and beautiful and people ask why,” he continues, gesturing his frustration. “There is no why!”

In other words, it’s like asking a mortal to explain a miracle, which is what Petit and all his co-conspirators pretty much agree happened that day. Through a combination of talking head interviews with the accomplices, often introduced in shadowed profile (aliases like “The Australian” and “Quality Guy” included under their names), a wealth of archival material (from home movies to professional still photos—Petit never met a camera he wouldn’t perform for), and B&W re-enactments that pale in comparison to Petit’s own hyperactive “re-enactments,” which use everything from small-scale models to the curtains and furniture at his Catskills home, Marsh crafts a briskly edited, fast-moving heist flick in which nothing gets stolen and only the perpetrator’s life is at stake.

That Petit lived wasn’t inexplicable, for his superhuman skill was never in doubt (“Of course, we all knew that he could fall… we may have thought it, but we didn’t believe it,” team member Jean-Francois explains). Everything else, however, from covertly getting past security to seamlessly rigging the equipment, all without the aid of a test run, was never a fait accompli. In fact, to say that fortune shined upon Petit and his band of death-defying merry pranksters, from start to finish, is a vast understatement. Besides heavy equipment being successfully transported past sleeping guards (a sequence Marsh scores with suspenseful strings) and a fishing line that missed its target, luckily landing at the very ledge of the building (one gust of wind and the “coup,” as Petit called his plan, would be wrecked), there was also the borrowed ID, courtesy of “Inside Man” Barry Greenhouse, an employee on the 82nd floor of the south tower.

So after all the intense preparation—from the accomplices swaying on wires to help Petit practice the effects of wind, to the small scale models built to figure out the rigging, from the engineering of the bow and arrow to get the rope from one tower to the other, to the nabbing of credentials that would allow Petit and his (American and Australian!) co-conspirators to pose as French journalists (doing a piece on the construction workers and thus allowing both WTC access and detailed photos of the buildings themselves)—this is what it came down to: luck. But twists of fate are par for the course for Petit, a man whose compulsion to walk between the towers was born at the time of the World Trade Center’s conception, and whose dream grew as the buildings rose (Marsh deftly splits the screen between the construction workers and the gangly, youthful Petit practicing his high-wire act). The WTC endeavor was nothing less than a calling for Petit—“as if the towers had been built specifically for Philippe” more than one co-conspirator says—a Don Quixote with wires in lieu of windmills. But unlike that thwarted hero, Petit’s success had as much to do with his skill as a salesman as it did with his otherworldly equilibrium.

Petit—who at the time looked like a red-headed version of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, a “provocateur” who once stole the watch off an arresting officer in Sydney (and who, during his first meeting with Man on Wire director Marsh, showed him how he could kill a man with a copy of “People” magazine)—“pitched” his plan, according to co-conspirator Albert, as if “he were selling time shares.” (Another accomplice, “The Australian,” went along with the scheme despite his profound fear of arrest. “Americans are very litigious,” he says. “Involuntary manslaughter, assisted suicide.”) And what an odd assortment of folks this high-wire artist, who prepared for feats by watching old bank robbery movies, enlisted. Marsh introduces us to the upright, reliable French crew, including Jean-Louis and Jean-Francois, both of whom had helped Petit pull off similar illegal acts at Notre Dame Cathedral and Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge, as well as his emotional support system/girlfriend Annie. There are also less worthy sorts like American “Donald,” who Jean-Louis accuses of showing up stoned the night before. (Donald’s shrugging response, “I smoked pot every day for 35 years—no reason to think I wasn’t stoned that night.”)

This happened in the free spirited seventies after all, and Marsh never lets us forget it, from the disco music on the soundtrack, to the B&W footage of Petit traversing bohemian Paris via unicycle, to the face of tricky Dick defending himself on the evening news, his corruption standing in stark contrast to Petit’s illegal act (“Against the law but not wicked or mean,” says Jean-Francois, just “wonderful”), which occurred the same week that Watergate reached its climax. Petit regales with the tale of how, upon his release, he was greeted by a beautiful girl—and ended up on a waterbed in some strange loft when he was supposed to be giving interviews. (Marsh stages a humorous re-enactment with echoes of the ménage a trois from A Clockwork Orange.)

Marsh has said that he wanted to depict “a true life fairytale, set in an era usually remembered as squalid and corrupt.” And by focusing solely on the “Miracle on 34th Street” aspect to Petit’s sky “dance” (he wasn’t “walking,” but rather “dancing,” an arresting officer adamantly states), eschewing any allusion to the fate of those towers less than thirty years later, Marsh has wisely taken the high road. The tragedy of 9/11 is palpably present in every frame featuring the WTC—to put an exclamation point on it would have been both unnecessary and a disservice to Petit’s own story of living. “To me it’s so simple,” Petit explains, as if walking tightropes makes more sense than any nine-to-five pursuit. “Life should be lived on the edge of life.”

For Petit really was the first man to conquer the towers (and in the most peaceful way). This high-wire feat was a calling, a spiritual journey he had to make. He describes the “1/2 millimeter mistake or 1/4 second of distraction” it takes to lose your life as if that’s part of the reason for doing it, “each day a work of art.” His accomplices describe how his face changes—like a “sphinx”—when he’s in the zone, that they know that this metamorphosis signals success. Their attention to detail that day was astounding. Petit recalls the “darkness of the freight elevator” as if it were yesterday, while “Donald” remembers that it was “a misty day” with “a little bit of wind” (eerily reminiscent of the specific 9/11 remembrances of that “bright sunny morning”). Jean-Louis breaks down at the memory of the relief he felt when Petit stopped “walking” and began to “dance.”

After initially being terrified when a piece of black clothing fell to the earth, Annie describes how, from down below, it looked like Petit was “walking on clouds.” Speaking of the moments when he lay down on the wire, when he kneeled and saluted the crowd, her eyes actually take on a faraway gaze before flooding with tears. This is someone describing a religious experience, the witnessing of art transformed into miracle. Petit claims to have looked down at the crowd (because, hey, he’d never have that chance again!) and actually “heard” the applause. (And who’s to second-guess a man who walks through air?) Petit merely laughed at the cops who’d come to pluck him from the sky—actually let them get within grabbing distance before rushing back to the middle of the rope, “knowing they wouldn’t follow.” (The audience I saw the film with broke into loud applause as Petit recounted the scene over the archival stills.) Petit informs that “the most dangerous part” occurred when, after being threatened with a helicopter rescue, he surrendered only to have the cops nearly throw him down the stairs in frustration. (An old newsreel shows one of the arresting officers being asked what he was thinking during Petit’s performance. “I watched a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he admits in disbelief.)

Yet in the end, after Petit’s release from custody, after his subsequent awarding of a “permanent guest pass” to the WTC observation deck, what remained was only an intangible memory, an ethereal miracle. The friendships dissolved, all relationships ended on the wire that day. But as Annie put it, “It was beautiful that way.” As Marsh closes on a tender shot of the nearly sixty-year-old Petit still navigating wires like sidewalks in his forested backyard, I couldn’t help but think of Petit’s own words, that “to die in the exercise of passion” would have been every bit as beautiful.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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